By Jaime Seltzer
Franҫoise Dolto was born to a very well-to-do, conventional French family in 1908, fourth of seven children. Even as a small child, many commented on her incredible ability to understand others, and at the ripe old age of eight, she was already telling anyone who would listen that she wanted to become a “doctor of child-rearing”. Not only was the idea that an eight-year-old could be a parenting expert laughable, the very idea of a female doctor was rather humorous in and of itself in 1916, similar to a child today proclaiming her desire to grow up to be an orangutan or a potted plant.
Profound experiences persuaded Françoise to decide on her career path at such a young age. Perhaps she and her younger siblings were misunderstood and mistreated by adults in a way that seemed cruel or oblivious to the incredibly intuitive Franҫoise. “…I used to wonder,” Franҫoise wrote, “…how people could be so strange since they had been children. And I said to myself: ‘When I’m big, I’ll try to remember what it’s like to be small.’”
Still, her career fantasy might have harmlessly dissolved if not for the death of Franҫoise’s elder sister, Jacqueline, when Franҫoise was twelve. Her mother had adjured Franҫoise to pray on the eve of her first communion, then blamed Franҫoise for “not praying hard enough” when Jacqueline inevitably died of bone cancer. Her mother then stated that she wished Franҫoise had died in her sister’s place. To make matters worse, Franҫoise’s mother attempted to have another child to replace Jacqueline. Franҫoise was left to care for little Jacques, who had so disappointed his mother by being born a boy, instead.
Franҫoise was engaged in a constant struggle with her conservative family, who felt that schooling was not for girls. Her massive, massive brain desperately needed stimulation and creativity, so she tried sewing, ceramics, watercolors, sculpture, and poster-making contests. Finally, her family agreed to fund the tuition for a nursing program for Franҫoise; at the same time, Franҫoise agreed to be engaged at her parents’ request (to a man of her mother’s choice, with whom she was friendly), so perhaps some kind of wartime parlay took place.
She waited until she could enter school at the same time as her brother, Philippe, and became a doctor anyway, of course, in part because she found needlepoint and bowl-making mind-numbingly repetitive. Of course, the moment she started her doctoral program, she dropped her arranged-marriage fiancé like a hot potato.
Then, once granted her full freedom, Franҫoise began to experience profound guilt. She sought psychoanalytic help, and with the aid of René Laforgue, her therapist, she began to overcome the guilt that had pressed her to follow her mother’s edicts despite all common sense.
By 1939, she was a family doctor and pediatrician, and a member of the Psychoanalytical Society of Paris. She also did hospital work with disturbed children.
The Freudian school of psychology, the bigwigs of the time, had the final say in what was considered ‘acceptable’ therapy and training. While Franҫoise was fervent about her ideas, she did not like dogma. She wanted therapists to be able to continue to grow, evolve, and change. Believe it or not, the Freudians took exception to Dolto saying her trainees could use whatever techniques worked for them.
In the late 1960s, Franҫoise began to host a radio program in which she would answer questions about child-rearing, education, and child psychology posed by listeners.
Franҫoise Dolto’s ideas about children ran very counter to the modern understanding of child-rearing. She believed that children were capable of great understanding and intelligence, though their skills at communication lagged behind, meaning that they could not easily convey their thoughts to adults. She was an advocate for children’s’ rights, stating that age thirteen should be the age of majority. Her effect on education was profound: she believed schools did not prepare children to make their own decisions, but to accept the decisions of others. She believed the only way to prepare children for the world was to communicate openly with them on an equal footing, respecting their autonomy and allowing them to make mistakes.
Before Franҫoise Dolto, children were seen as extensions of their parents: to be ‘seen and not heard’, there when required and otherwise invisible. For example, in many homes, children were not allowed to speak at the dinner table unless they had been directly addressed. Franҫoise encouraged the public to see children as individuals, with wants and desires separate from that of their parents, and accordingly fought to give children the power to express those wants and desires in a safe environment, with the analyst as the child’s advocate.
Binet, E. (1999). Francoise Dolto (1908-88) [Electronic version]. Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education, XXIX(3), 445-454.
Reperes Biographiques Françoise Dolto. (2001). In Archives Françoise Dolto. Retrieved August 13, 2015, from http://www.dolto.fr/archives/siteWeb/english/bio-en.htm
Sellem, J. (2008, November 18). Francoise Dolto: an analyst who listened to children. French Daily Newspaper (L’Humanite). Retrieved from http://www.humaniteinenglish.com/article1071.html
Telling a Child the Truth. (n.d.). In Children of prisoners Europe. Retrieved from http://childrenofprisoners.eu/telling-a-child-the-truth/
Turkle, S. (1995). Tough Love: An Introduction to Francoise Dolto’s When Parents Separate. In Sherry Turkle. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/sturkle/www/dolto.html
Women Psychoanalysts in France: Franҫoise Dolto. (2015). In B. Nölleke (Ed.), Psychoanalytikerinnen. Biografisches Lexikon. Retrieved August 3, 2015, from http://www.psychoanalytikerinnen.de/france_biographies.html#Dolto